FTC Privacy Settlement Too Favorable To Facebook, Watchdogs Say

Watchdogs are asking a federal judge to reject the Federal Trade Commission's proposed settlement with Facebook over alleged privacy violations, arguing that the deal is too favorable to the social networking platform.

The potential settlement requires Facebook to pay $5 billion and to accept new oversight on privacy. If accepted by a judge, the deal would immunize Facebook from prosecution for a slew of potential privacy violations that occurred before mid-June of this year -- including ones that haven't yet come to light.

“The FTC’s settlement with Facebook is not fair and not adequate,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center writes in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Tuesday with U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly in Washington, D.C. “The settlement releases Facebook from liability for past violations that are not addressed or even identified in the complaint, and the settlement does not impose meaningful changes to Facebook’s business practices.”

EPIC adds that the proposed immunity for Facebook is unacceptably vague.

“This incredibly broad release of claims in the proposed settlement raises more questions than it answers, and it is not clear how it would be judicially enforceable or how this court could issue such an order,” the privacy group writes. “No one can fairly evaluate the propriety of a settlement whose terms are indeterminate; not the FTC, not the court, and certainly not the public.”

The organizations Public Citizen, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Common Sense Media and U.S. Public Interest Research Group raise similar concerns in a separate friend-of-the-court brief, also filed Tuesday.

Those groups note that the settlement could potentially release Facebook from liability for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires companies to obtain parental consent before knowingly collecting personal data from children younger than 13.

Three of the organizations -- Public Citizen, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Common Sense Media -- previously argued to the FTC that Facebook's Messenger Kids service doesn't comply with the children's privacy law.

“Complaints about Facebook’s treatment of children ... raise concerns that could fall under the proposed decree’s release clause and that illustrate the problems with awarding Facebook such a broad release,” the groups write.

The proposed settlement aims to resolve an investigation into whether Facebook violated the terms of a 2012 consent decree. That earlier order, which also stemmed from an investigation into Facebook's privacy practices, prohibits the company from misrepresenting the extent to which it makes users' information available to third parties.

Facebook allegedly violated the decree in several ways, including by allowing Cambridge Analytica and other outside developers access to users' data, collecting phone numbers for security purposes but then using them for advertising, and misleading people about the use of facial recognition technology.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Indiana) recently expressed many of the same concerns as the watchdogs.

“I am concerned that the settlement lets Facebook off the hook for unspecified violations,” she said in a letter sent to the FTC last week. “Moreover, I am concerned that the release of Facebook and its officers from legal liability is far too broad and sets a dangerous precedent for future Commission actions.”

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